Tough Bugs

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

“Stream channelization, pollution, and insecticides have taken their toll on the mayfly life that, according to trouting literature, once flourished in our waters. The eager rise of trout to emerging insects, that magical event for which many trout fishermen live, is unfortunately rare. Many of the classic hatches have all but disappeared from public waters in the Poconos. If one were to follow a source such as Schwiebert’s Matching the Hatch in preparing patterns for use in our area, he might find a considerable number of them can be eliminated because so few of the naturals now exist in major streams.”

Don Baylor
Pocono Hatches
Pocono Hatches was published in 1980, and as you can imagine this situation has for the most part only gotten worse during the forty years since. Even so, the Poconos still have much better and more diverse hatches than the waters nearer my home in the Philadelphia suburbs. The best thing I can say is that there isn’t much channelizing of streams going on anymore.

Those of us who love fly fishing, of course, have adapted to the decline of the classic hatches. Attractor patterns have become increasingly important in our pursuit of trout and other gamefish. Yet there are still hatch-matching opportunities. We simply have to turn our attention to the insects that have also been able to adapt. There are a handful of aquatic insects that still live, and sometimes even thrive, in our altered streams. Here are some of my favorites.

Midges

Chironomids are by far the most significant hatch in the streams I fish. They are ubiquitous, abundant, and a frequent trigger for selective feeding. Midges are very important during the winter, when they are usually the only hatch available. A relatively warm day in January or February often brings on an emergence.

I like to keep my workhorse fly patterns simple and easy to tie. Although I believe firmly that a wise fly fisher always carries some change-ups, I rely on two midge patterns. For the pupa, which is often the most important, I use an Al’s Rat. This pattern could not be simpler. On a standard dry fly hook, form a double layer of brown size 3/0 Danville Monocord. Add a small ball of Muskrat dubbing as a thorax. Done. I once saw a photograph of a real midge pupa next to a wet Al’s Rat and the likeness was uncanny. For the adults, I like a Griffith’s Gnat. I tie both in sizes 20, 22, and 24.

Blue-winged Olives

BWO’s are second only to midges in their importance on local waters. In this area they generally range in size from 16 to 26 and can hatch any time from March through December. For the nymph, you can’t beat the traditional Pheasant Tail. I am also very partial to the Barr BWO Emerger invented by John Barr, the originator of the famous Copper John nymph. For the larger duns I like parachute patterns, for the smaller ones a simple hackle dry fly. For the spinners, my choice is an appropriately-sized Poly-wing Rusty Spinner in the larger sizes, and for the smaller ones a hackle dry fly with a rusty body and white or pale dun hackle clipped flat on the bottom.

Craneflies

I’m not talking about the huge “mosquitoes on steroids” craneflies that buzz around your porch light on summer evenings, but rather the much smaller ones that emerge in mid-spring often along with Sulphur mayflies. It’s hard to describe these insects in terms of a hook size because of their bizarre bodily proportions. They are very spindly, with a skinny body and very long legs. They vary in color from cream to tan to ginger, and sometimes gray.

I imitate the cranefly adults with a soft hackle tied on a #18 hook. A double layer of tying thread will suffice for the abdomen. Add a dubbed fur thorax and just a turn or two of hackle of a length you’d normally use on a #12 hook.

If you see cranefly adults, but there is no surface activity on the part of the trout, try nymphing with a Walt’s Worm to suggest the larvae. This very simple pattern consists of nothing more than a body of Hare’s Ear dubbing with a bit of Antron mixed in, on a scud hook.

I once ran into an angler Czech-nymphing on a local stream that holds a good wild Brown Trout population. Fishing had been tough. He was almost apologetic in admitting he’d stomach-pumped the one trout he’d managed to catch and found it stuffed with size 16 cranefly larvae. Although I generally don’t approve of this procedure, the information provided made a big impression on me. I’ve used the Walt’s Worm very successfully many times since.

Caddis

Not all caddis species are tolerant to environmental degradation. However, the net-spinners of the genus Hydropsyche are more so than most. They are filter-feeders, and mild organic pollution actually benefits them by producing higher concentrations of their food in the water. Craig Mathews “X-Caddis” is my go-to pattern for caddis adults. For the pupa, I like a Partridge and Olive or Partridge and Hare’s Ear soft hackle.

Sulphurs

Ephemerella invaria (the Big Sulphur) and E. dorothea (the Pale Evening Dun) are well-known to be among the tough, pioneer invertebrates that are the first to repopulate streams that are recovering from environmental damage. Although I don’t see them in the numbers I once did, this is still a hatch that is well worth looking for.

My fly selection for these insects is a lot more complicated than usual. I’ve had experiences with this hatch when trout would take a simple cream-colored hackle dry fly very consistently. The pattern is nothing but a hackle fiber tail, a quill or sparse dubbed body, and enough wound hackle to float the fly well. I’ve also fished to Sulphur hatches when the trout were incredibly fussy, requiring a lot of fly changes and tippet-tinkering to solve the puzzle. So I tie and carry a variety of patterns for all life-stages. I particularly like a Thorax-Style dry for the duns. Emerger patterns can be very important.

Tricos

The tiny Tricorythodes mayflies that hatch reliably on summer mornings seem quite tolerant of degraded stream conditions. I generally fish only spinner patterns for this hatch. The classic poly-wing spinner is my fly of choice. Size really matters with this fly. Eastern Tricos run smaller than the Western ones. I use sizes 24 and 26 exclusively. I carry Trico spinner patterns with an all-black body, which imitates the male spinners, and use this fly most. I also carry some with white abdomens, which fish for the females. Once mating is complete the males hit the water first, with the females following toward the end of the spinner fall after the eggs have been laid. I have seen trout selective to the females.

A #14 or 16 Griffith’s Gnat works well during Trico hatches on warmwater streams, to suggest a clump of spinners. A Trico spinner fall can bring many large Fallfish and panfish to the surface. Stalking risers and sight-fishing to these fish on shallow flats is great sport. A stealthy approach and accurate, delicate casting are essential.

Terrestrials

In addition to the aquatic insects listed above, terrestrial insects are obviously very important to both fish and angler in degraded streams. Ant and beetle imitations are my bread-and-butter terrestrial fly patterns.

In my opinion, many anglers tend to get far too precious with these flies. Yes, there are times when you have to go to tiny flies and light tippets when one form is sufficiently abundant to trigger selectivity. This happens most often with mating flights of ants. The water can be peppered with winged ants, and success requires an accurate imitation and careful presentation.

Most feeding to terrestrial insects, however, is opportunistic in nature and any number of different forms will draw strikes. I tie my workhorse beetles and ants on size 14, 16, and 18 hooks, and almost invariably they are constructed of foam.

Patterns and tying instructions for foam beetles are simple and readily available. Foam cylinders make excellent ant bodies. Lash the foam to the hook, take enough thread turns in the middle to form a well-defined waist, and add a turn of hackle or a few fibers of synthetic hair to suggest legs. If you have trouble getting foam bodies to hold securely on the hook, put a small dab of Superglue on the thread base before mounting the body.

If you feel like you’ve been carrying around way too many flies that you never use, and want to do some downsizing, targeting the Tough Bugs may be a great way to simplify your fly selection. Happy tying and fishing.

4 thoughts on “Tough Bugs

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Nice article and photos Mary, you’ve got me pulling out the vise again! I don’t typically see or target selective feeding events, likely because you’ve got to be there when one happens which means logging an awful lot of hours annually on a stream…and sadly I don’t get quite that many. But that doesn’t mean these patterns aren’t useful. I do use BWO and adult caddis patterns here and there. I will tie and try the Al’s Rat now that you mention it; thanks. Good photos.

    Reply
  2. Mary S. Kuss

    Thanks, Mike. I have to agree with you that purposeful efforts to “meet” hatches are often in vain, because the bugs feel no obligation at all to adhere to the schedules found in hatch charts. Expected hatches can be early, late, or completely absent. However, I like to have a selection of flies in my boxes that will allow me to suggest, if not imitate, the more common hatches I’m likely to run into by chance. I don’t go searching with the Al’s Rat, I use it exclusively as a hatch-matcher. I find it works best during an active midge emergence, which is not an uncommon event around here. I usually fish it on a dry/dropper rig with a parachute midge pattern as the top fly. I once set up a guiding client with this rig on one of our local stocked streams, and we caught trout after trout at the head of a big pool. Further down the pool a couple of other anglers were getting absolutely nothing. After a while Daniel, my client, leaned over and whispered to me, “Those guys are going to kill us!”

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Hilarious; I guess being good at guiding has its risks!

      I’m likely to try anything that looks like a local bug, whether there’s a hatch on or not. If I ever get past this house arrest, I’ll see if the Al’s Rat in still-ish water might turn a head or two.

      > bugs feel no obligation at all to adhere to the schedules found in hatch charts

      The nerve! Bloody anarchists….

      – Mike

      Reply

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